Jono McLeod still remembers first meeting Brandon Lee. Not the actor son of the famous martial-arts master Bruce Lee — rather, the peculiar 16-year-old who was the new student in his class at Scotland’s Bearsden Academy back in 1993. “The door opened, and in he walks,” McLeod tells me over Zoom. “He was an unusual-looking and acting guy, but then a few kids at school were unusual-acting and unusual-looking. I was just another oblivious kid amongst all those others.”
Brandon appeared to be demonstrably older, prompting the students at this elite secondary school just outside Glasgow to cruelly nickname him “Thirtysomething.” But he proved to be a pretty good egg, helping classmates master tough subjects, offering car rides and befriending fellow outsiders so they didn’t feel so alone. Hailing from Canada and carrying some considerable emotional baggage — his mother, an opera singer, had died, forcing him to move to Scotland to live with his grandmother — Brandon eventually became the lead in that year’s musical, South Pacific. But his dream was to be a doctor, which with his good grades seemed to be an easily obtainable objective. Soon, he was off to medical school at Dundee University — and then things got weird.
McLeod’s feature-length debut My Old School, which premiered at this year’s virtual Sundance, chronicles what happened to Brandon, and although this information is easily searchable online, I’ll slap on a Spoiler Alert here just to be safe.
In 1995, it was uncovered that Brandon Lee wasn’t actually Brandon Lee: He was Brian MacKinnon, a man in his early 30s posing as a new Bearsden student. Remarkably, MacKinnon had gone to that same school when he was younger, going off to Glasgow University to become a physician, only to be bounced because of bad exam scores. Feeling that he’d been wronged, MacKinnon plotted a way to go back to college, hatching a plan to return to Bearsden Academy and get it right this time — only to screw up the whole thing yet again when he failed out of Dundee.
McLeod has never stopped thinking of MacKinnon, and so he decided to make a documentary about what he experienced firsthand as a teenager, reaching out to his classmates — many for the first time in decades — to have them share their own murky memories of this unusual conman. Utilizing animation alongside sitdown interviews with Bearsden alum — as well as recreating the classrooms of Bearsden Academy, which has been torn down — My Old School is nostalgic and whimsical. And it features an intriguing conceit: McLeod tapped Tony-winning fellow Scotsman Alan Cumming to “play” the disgraced man, lip-syncing along to an interview MacKinnon gave McLeod. (The agreement was that McLeod could record MacKinnon’s audio, but not shoot any video.) We see Cumming, but we hear MacKinnon, giving My Old School an extra layer of subterfuge — not to mention a weird sense of poetic justice since Cumming was, years ago, planning on directing and starring in a movie about MacKinnon.
When I interviewed McLeod, I noticed that neither of us used MacKinnon’s real name: Instead, we both referred to him as Brandon. I shouldn’t have been surprised considering that My Old School does a good job establishing who Brandon “was” as seen through the eyes of his now-middle-aged classmates, who vividly recall their time with him — even when their recollections don’t always line up with each other, or the actual truth. (Was Brandon a good singer? Depends on who you ask.) In a sense, the documentary is chasing after a ghost, a person who never was but sure seemed to be. Complimenting Cumming’s performance, McLeod tells me at one point, “What he’s portraying is Brandon — if the Brandon that I knew grew up. It’s what Brandon Lee would’ve looked like had he been a real person.”
My Old School has its share of twists — we quickly realize that even basic elements of the yarn Brandon concocted for Bearsden’s faculty and students were lies — and even if you know the gist of this story, it’s really in the details where the film comes alive. Along the way, the documentary becomes a meditation on teenage life, our relationship with our younger self, and the universal desire to go back and start over — an impulse Brandon pursued to alarming extremes.
Is Brandon’s quixotic quest a cautionary tale, a dark character study or an amusing fact-is-stranger-than-fiction curiosity? In our conversation, McLeod explains why he wasn’t interested in crafting a damning portrait of his former classmate. And as he and I talked, I very much got the sense that “Brandon” is alive and well in his mind, as well as the minds of many of Bearsden’s old students. (Also interesting: When McLeod speaks of his teenage life, he refers to it in the present tense.) As such — and to help avoid spoilers — this Q&A refers to this conman only as Brandon.
Below, McLeod discusses the surreality of reverting to his teenage mindset while making My Old School, why he has a weird admiration for what Brandon pulled off and how it feels (as he puts it) to have “a success that’s tied to someone else’s failure.”
When Brandon first showed up at school, your classmates thought he looked weird and old, nicknaming him “Thirtysomething.” But My Old School demonstrates that he eventually got pretty popular — did that transformation happen quickly?
I wouldn’t say it was super-quick. I would say the point at which he’d connected [at] school was when he took that lead role in the school musical. To be honest with you, I didn’t do the high school musical — probably because I was terrified that people would identify me as the gay kid of the class — so I stayed well away. But I should have done [it], because we all know that doing musical theater and stuff really helps kids connect with each other. And I think that’s what worked for him — a lot of the key friendships he developed were through doing that. That was the turning point.
In previous interviews, you’ve said that, because you were so concerned about kids finding out you were gay, you didn’t necessarily spend time trying to figure out if Brandon wasn’t who he said he was. Your sexuality isn’t mentioned in My Old School, but do you think that hiding a secret in school yourself gave you more compassion for what Brandon might have been going through?
[My sexuality] is infused through the film, but I never wanted the film to be focused on me. I would absolutely say being the gay kid at school — or just being the gay kid growing up — gives you a certain sensitivity to what it’s like to be different, to be the odd one out. And God knows it’s been an at-times painful experience for me making this film, because I’ve agonized over all of my classmates: “Am I doing the right thing? Am I telling the story in the right way — in the most faithful, sensitive way to them?” So yeah, there’s definitely connections to that.
I am very much an outsider at the school — aside from being the gay kid, I’m also not from Bearsden. I’m from a town on the other side of the tracks called Clydebank, and it’s where the rougher kids were. I wasn’t one of the rougher kids, but I came in by bus with them. Being [an outsider] helped in making the film, because I found out a lot of stuff along the way that I didn’t know back then — I wasn’t going to the parties, I didn’t have all the friends that Brandon had because I didn’t know how to do school as well as he did.
You’ve mentioned that Brandon Lee has been a dinner-party story for a lot of your classmates — this amazing anecdote they could pull out for any occasion. Was that true for you, too?
Yeah, absolutely — and my understanding of it changed very much through the process of making the film. What I came to realize was that the reason we were all so confused about what actually went on back then is that we’d never actually all got together and figured out, “Hey, did you hear this? Did you see this?”
The person who’s been telling the story all these years has been Brandon himself. He’s published multiple accounts. He has sold the movie rights. He did the chat-show circuit. He was very much leading the way and saying what happened back then, and so it wasn’t until I started reaching out to all my classmates and doing the interviews that I suddenly started to put pieces of the jigsaw together that I didn’t know existed.
Making this movie, did you find yourself reverting to your teenage self? Especially because a lot of your interview subjects were people you hadn’t talked to since you all were kids?
Well, I felt a bit like my teenage self when I approached some of my classmates to take part and they told me where to go and shove it. [Laughs] That was very much like being cast back in time. But the people who did want to take part, it was just a total joy. I left school and didn’t look back — I maybe kept in touch with a couple of the people that you see in the film, but for the most part, those people I was seeing afresh for the first time in like 25 years.
My favorite part of that whole shoot was I was interviewing my friend Adnan — we’re filming it in an old school that we found, we’d rebuilt our childhood classroom — and Adnan is sitting at a little school desk. We finished his interview and one of the [P.A.s] comes up and goes, “Ah, Jono, Adnan: Mr. Gunn, the physics teacher, is downstairs, and he wants to see you right now.” So these two 40-something-year-old men are giggling and shuffling down the high school corridor to be sent to Mr. Gunn’s office. [Laughs] It was like PEN15.
For a movie that’s about going back in time, everybody associated with this film has had to go back in time in some form. It’s been a weird reconnection with their former selves.
Alan Cumming lip-syncs his performance, and it’s pretty seamless, but I wondered how you directed him. Did you have him mimic Brandon’s facial expressions or body language?
So, there was no video for Alan to see because Brandon’s stipulation was that no video be recorded — it was only an audio recording. There is, obviously, old footage of Brandon from when he was doing TV shows back in the day, so that was made available to Alan. He certainly took a look at it, but I don’t think it necessarily massively informed his performance.
The way I look at Alan’s performance — he might think differently — Alan is not portraying the real man, certainly physically. What he’s portraying is Brandon — if the Brandon that I knew grew up. It’s what Brandon Lee would’ve looked like had he been a real person.
On the Alan shoot days, it was just super-intense. It’s not like I’m this technical wiz or anything — the reference point for me was a film by Clio Barnard called The Arbor [which also incorporates lip-synced performances], so I watched that and was like, “How the hell would she have done that?” [Cumming gave] this reverse-ADR performance. And talk about going back in time: The movie back in the 1990s that Alan was meant to star in playing Brandon, Alan was also meant to direct. Because the process of the lip sync was so intense — it was just repetition, repetition, repetition — I very much leaned back and Alan kind of directed himself. There would only be a few occasions when I’d be like, “I think perhaps Brandon is thinking something else at this point,” but Alan got to direct himself as Brandon Lee.
It was this masterful performance. Everybody was kind of transfixed — it was weird and trippy and a bit brainwash-y to be in the room with him doing that for a day and a half.
In America, we’re raised to believe that we can reinvent ourselves — that we can always change our fortune, change our lives. Is that a particularly Scottish trait as well? I wondered how much of that fed into Brandon’s thought process while trying to pull off this hoax in order to become a doctor.
Scotland has a thing — I think a lot of countries have, I certainly know Australia does, [they call it] the “tall poppy syndrome,” where if somebody gets [too full of themselves], then we’re quite happy to cut them down. And certainly Brandon feels that certain people have [made] it their business to stop him achieving what he wants to achieve. And so what he hopes that he pulls off is purely his method of thwarting those efforts to stop him achieving his dreams.
But in terms of the theme that I see for the film, it’s that town of Bearsden — this Beverly Hills of Glasgow — where there are great expectations on kids to achieve and to follow in their family’s footsteps, becoming lawyers and dentists and all of that. What does it mean when those expectations are so forced upon kids? That “keeping up with the Joneses” thing can happen in places like that. That idea of privilege I was interested in looking at.
As you said, Brandon has already told his story several times. Why agree to do your film, then? Was he wanting to make sure he was cast in a favorable light?
He says he just needs to get his story out there, because out there will be someone who agrees that he has been wronged and can help him in some way. And even if 99 percent of people don’t think that, all he needs is to find someone who can help him to achieve his goals. He’s willing to share his story however he can, I guess.
When you interviewed him, were there things he wouldn’t talk about? Was it ever tough to pin him down on certain aspects of his story that clearly aren’t true?
The crucial thing about the film is that Brandon [was] the first interview, and he never spoke again. It was a really lengthy interview — it was hours and hours of interview that we did — but the things that I then found out [afterward about his story], I didn’t have the opportunity to go back and ask him about.
I think that Brandon’s involvement became less appealing to him when he realized that I was going to be interviewing multiple people whose stories might not tally with his own. [Laughs] But I don’t think he would have the answers to give me to those questions, because the reality that he exists in is not the reality that the other people I was interviewing exist in. [It’s] his version of events, and I know who I believe.
In the press, I see My Old School sometimes referred to as a conman movie. Is that how you see Brandon?
That term is kind of infused, isn’t it? But he conned us, and he’s a man, so let’s say so. I think he’d put his hands up to that. There was a point in the interview — I don’t use it in the film — where we went through some newspaper headlines, and there were certain things that he objected to in his coverage. But certain things — headlines calling him a liar — he was like, “Yeah, man, ‘Liar liar, pants on fire,’ that’s me.” In the grand tradition of Catch Me If You Can, he’s our Scottish version.
And like criminals, there seems to be a part of him that wanted to get caught.
That’s the whole thing: He puts himself in situations which are risky, and as a result, he gets found out. But what if the greatest thing you achieved in your life, nobody ever knew about? What if you pulled off Scotland’s most incredible hoax — and all that happened was you became a doctor and nobody ever really bothered you again? Isn’t there more fun to be had in everyone knowing how clever you are that you managed to do that? I’m kind of fascinated by that aspect of it.
A very different film could have been made out of this same subject matter — one that’s very dark and views him from the perspective that he’s got this unhealthy obsession with becoming a doctor. My Old School is far more lighthearted, but do you see the darkness in his story?
I think there are people out there in the world who are just wired differently to the rest of us. For the most part, myself and all my classmates — for good or for bad — have a certain fondness for Brandon and can find humor in what he did. We don’t always think he made the right decisions, but we have an understanding of where he was coming from.
I love watching Tinder Swindler and The Imposter — they’re great films — but I never wanted to make that kind of film. To me, [My Old School] has always been connected to the idea of a high school movie. It is the ultimate high school movie: A stranger arrives in class and things will never be the same. It’s Mean Girls, it’s Clueless, it’s Never Been Kissed. And especially with gathering all my classmates together — they are so funny and that connection we had — I just can’t imagine those interviews being in a dark film.
At the end of the film, you hint that maybe Brandon is about to execute his next scheme to try to become a doctor, that he might do something as radical as undergo plastic surgery to change his identity. Is that based on anything? Am I reading too much into that?
I was trying to find a way to explain to people, “Don’t underestimate this man, he’s ingenious.” He managed to pull this amazing thing off, so don’t be surprised if he’s got further tricks up his sleeve. As you find out at the end of the film, he still lives around town, not far from where the school used to be — and so now there’s this weird situation where my classmates [will be] at the grocery store, in the queue, and Brandon will be in front of them. They’re like, “It’s so embarrassing, we all have to pretend that we’re not in a movie about each other.”
Do they speak to him?
People try to say hello, and he doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to connect with any of us. I don’t know if he connects with any of his classmates from back in his actual school days, but he doesn’t want to connect with any of us.
What I can’t get over is, look, becoming a doctor is obviously laudable, but it’s not the only job out there. Why can’t he let that go?
That’s the thing: Some people have a really visceral reaction to not having a film tied up in a bow for them, and I just wasn’t going to do that for anyone. I want people to leave the cinema making their own minds up and debating these things.
I mean, here’s this kid who grew up in Bearsden, where there’s expectations placed upon [young people]. What could be going on that would make you so fixated and so focused — to be frozen in time and watch your classmates, two times, grow up and get on and have jobs and stuff? What would that be like?
I don’t know, the really freaky thing about this whole process for me is having a success that’s tied to someone else’s failure. That’s so bizarre. But there’s a Glasgow writer I know called Denise Mina — a crime writer, she’s amazing — and some of her books have been related to real events. And she says that when you want to tell stories like this, you have to have something of the vampire about you, because you’re essentially feeding off of someone else’s misfortune. And so I’m super-aware of that, and I guess that’s why the film is the way that it is.
I’m aware that it’s the story of someone not succeeding — except at the same time, massively succeeding. What I desperately want for Brandon is for him to embrace that he is the most successful hoaxer in Scottish history — like, that’s better than being a bloody doctor. That’s more amazing. That’s more incredible. You’re incredible.
In retrospect, is there anything you wished you could have asked him? Some sort of admission he’d make? Obviously, for a lot of filmmakers, that would have been the hook — to get him to own up to something.
But it wouldn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t mean anything because he’d be the one saying it. That’s the unfortunate thing: It’s the boy who cried wolf, isn’t it? But at the same time, somebody can compulsively tell lies and you can still have compassion for them — I definitely believe that.